Tuesday 6 March 2018

Home of the Brave (1949)

Director: Mark Robson
Writer: Carl Foreman, based on the play by Arthur Laurents
Stars: Jeff Corey, James Edwards and Lloyd Bridges

Index: 2018 Centennials.

Watching the news lately, it sometimes seems like we’ve hardly progressed at all in the world of race relations. Movies like this are shocking realisations of how far we’ve really come and how quickly because they chart the passage of time. A couple of years ago, I took a look at how outrageously racist Hollywood was back in its classic era, while celebrating the career of Willie Best, a massively talented African American actor who began his career as Sleep n’ Eat and was given next to nothing to do for decades; well, except act lazy, eat watermelon and roll dice. I chose The Ghost Breakers to remember him, given that he was close to being half a comedic double act with Bob Hope in it, but he still had to deal with spook jokes and dialogue like, ‘You look like a blackout in a blackout.’ It was 1940, after all, only a year after Hattie McDaniel had become the first African American winner of an Academy Award for her performance in Gone with the Wind. Less well remembered is the fact that she was also the first African American nominee.

While that was a major step, it has to also be remembered that Georgia’s segregationist laws meant that she was barred from even attending the film’s premiere in Atlanta; Hollywood and America had a long way to go. It seems appropriate to mention here that Sidney Poitier was only thirteen at the time, because we tend to see him nowadays as the true beginning of progress, but that’s not entirely fair. He made his mark early in his career in No Way Out, playing a doctor who treats a pair of racist brothers, but that was in 1950; it was his second film and the first for which he received a credit. Yet a year earlier, another African American actor made his mark in a role that would have been perfect for Poitier; his name was James Edwards and he would have been a hundred years old today. What’s more, he does a fantastic job in a complex role and, in doing so, set the stage for Poitier and the big changes that we would see over the next couple of decades, if often through Poitier’s far more prominent performances.

Officially, he’s one of an ensemble cast of six, all men, with a seventh appearing briefly early on, but he really has the starring role and he’s the focal point of the entire film. It’s World War II and he plays Peter Moss, a first class private who has learned surveying in the army and who volunteers for a dangerous mission. Intelligence urgently needs information on a Pacific island, occupied by the Japanese, in order to plan an amphibious assault. He accompanies three soldiers and an officer and acquits himself admirably, creating and returning a set of maps, but leaves the island suffering from severe shock, as a paralysed amnesiac being treated by a doctor in a field hospital. We watch what prompted him to reach that state in a number of flashback scenes that gradually bring his story out. It’s a fascinating one, making this picture as much a psychological drama as a war movie as the doctor pokes and prods, helping us and Moss both to understand why his mind and body shut themselves down and what must be done to bring them back.

Weirdly, given that the whole thing clearly focuses on race with a subtle depth, it wasn’t originally about it at all. Home of the Brave started out as a play, written in 1945, apparently in nine nights, by an army sergeant, Arthur Laurents, who had spent the Second World War in Queens working with George Cukor in the Army Pictorial Service, a branch of the Signal Corps dedicated to training and entertaining the troops. He never went closer to the South Pacific arena than a photograph of GIs in a jungle, but that inspired him to write a play that examined anti-Semitism in the forces, as well as regular themes for him like loyalty and male friendship. It flopped on Broadway, despite some critical acclaim, closing after only three months, but Hollywood snapped it up and rewrote it to be a racial story, Peter Coen becoming Peter Moss because, apparently, ‘Jews have been done.’ Laurents, who had just adapted Rope for Alfred Hitchcock, had no clout at all; his biggest successes, like the musicals Gypsy and West Side Story, would come later.
It’s oddly appropriate, looking back, that Hollywood would change the theme because the script, by Carl Foreman, equates all sorts of prejudice. The message here is that racism isn’t any different from anti-Semitism or any other prejudice at heart; as Jeff Corey’s unnamed doctor points out to Private Moss, ‘the very same people who make the cracks, who try to make you feel different, do it because, down deep underneath, they feel insecure and unhappy too. They need a scapegoat, somebody they can despise, so they can feel strong. Believe me, they need help as much as you do, maybe more.’ Laurents didn’t like the change, of course, but given that he was a closeted gay man who was later blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Commission for his liberal politics, maybe such a general approach works ironically well. It would have been as easy to translate his original Jewish character into a gay man or a Communist as an African American. After all, prejudice is prejudice, right?

Perhaps what works best here is that each of the five men who land on the unnamed Pacific island has their own neurosis, though they’re clearly identified as the best men for the job at hand. The man in charge, Major Robinson, is very capable but, with a mere 26 years, he’s also very young and he believes that people judge him because of that. Corporal T. J. Everett was relatively wealthy before the war, pulling in $15,000 a year as the vice president of a company and, while he’s a common redneck racist, he feels that his colleagues treat him differently because of his background. I won’t spoil Sergeant Mingo’s revelation, but he too has his reason to feel insecure and less than his fellow soldiers. Moss, a black man fighting alongside whites, was merely the most overt anomaly, given that President Truman didn’t abolish segregation in the armed forces until 1948. I don’t know enough to question whether a scenario like this one could ever have really happened, but it certainly wouldn’t have been commonplace.
Another key note here is that the racism, which naturally shows up quickly and often, is frequently not calculated and deliberate like it was in many of the movies that would dominate the sixties, from To Kill a Mockingbird to In the Heat of the Night. Much of what we see here is the casual racism of the time, which is felt just as strongly. For instance, Moss first appears as he reports for special assignment. The major has just assembled the other three, explained the situation and asked them to volunteer. They’re shocked to see Moss, of course, but they argue as if he wasn’t standing there. It’s a reunion for Finch, who was friends with Moss in school and hasn’t seen him since, but the others, especially Everett, aren’t so open. ‘This is nothing personal to do with your friend,’ he tells Finch, ‘but why do you think the army kept them out of the lines?’ Everett mostly seems blissfully unaware that he’s racist, even in situations where the others rail on him for it. It’s simply how he was brought up. He doesn’t understand.

At least the major has the good taste to take his concerns into private, where he calls Colonel Baker on his field telephone to state that the engineer sent over is coloured. When Baker tells him that he’s the only available qualified engineer who volunteered and so he ‘wouldn’t care if he was purple all over and had green stripes down the back’, Robinson lets the matter drop. He gets a great line late in the movie, telling Mingo that he stopped thinking of Moss as being black after they got to the island. ‘Yeah, it is funny,’ Mingo replies. ‘I never think about you being white.’ These characters do have story arcs, but they’re subtle ones, the script being of a very high calibre. The rest of the picture matches it, even though this was self-financed, made by Stanley Kramer Productions but with the money coming from associate producer Robert Stillman and his father. Then again, director Mark Robson had made a set of cheap horror movies for RKO look much bigger than their budgets, including The Ghost Ship, Isle of the Dead and Bedlam.
This is another reason why this is a psychological drama as much as a war movie. We don’t glimpse a single Japanese soldier at any point during the film, though there are encounters capably hidden behind jungle foliage. Robson and his thoroughly experienced cinematographer, Robert de Grasse, used techniques reminiscent of those RKO horrors to make the indoor jungle set seem like an eerie and constantly dangerous enemy, a character of its own with plenty to hide; those techniques work exactly the same way for Japanese snipers as they do for werewolves. It’s lit to fantastic effect, dark and claustrophobic but we can always see what we need to see. There’s one fantastic shot of a macaw crying out as the soldiers pass, but the frequent haunting sounds of jungle birds were mostly the work of a specialised mimic named Herbert Tweedy, who wasn’t credited even though he imitated a dozen birds native to the South Pacific. Sadly, he doesn’t even have an IMDb page.

All of this admirable texture does make it seem like we’re on a remote Japanese-occupied island, even though it was really Malibu Beach and a bunch of indoor sound stages. However, Robson and his crew never manage to escape the script’s origin as a play. It’s clearly a play, from the large amount of dialogue to the careful choreography within small spaces. Almost the entire movie unfolds in perhaps three locations: the room in which the major briefs the soldiers, the jungle on the Pacific island and the field hospital in which the doctor attempts to help Private Moss. As realistic as it all seems, it’s still stagebound. I wonder if that’s why the weakest point to me is Dimitri Tiomkin’s score; it’s a decent composition in itself but the orchestral approach doesn’t seem appropriate for the subject matter, except at the outset, when his rousing score makes the big guns firing seem patriotic, and at the end, when he transcribes the spiritual Motherless Child into a choral piece to heighten the emotion of the scene.
The cast, character actors for the most part, are excellent and it helps that they aren’t big names. These are faceless soldiers of the sort who did important work during wartime that led to an allied victory but whom we will never know. Lloyd Bridges is easily the biggest star to us today, but he wasn’t that bankable at the time, one year after Secret Service Investigator and one before Rocketship X-M; three years later, he would be prominent in High Noon, the shooting title of this film for reasons unknown, and would remain that way for decades. Douglas Dick is a very believable young major, a year after Rope; he never made many movies but would be a frequent guest star on American television shows. As the grizzled sergeant, Frank Lovejoy channels William Holden; he’s a regular face in quality B-movies, including a couple of notable 1953 films, The Hitch-Hiker and House of Wax. The prolific Steve Brodie adds a level of edge to the film; he made many good movies but many bad ones too, especially towards the end of his career.

And, with acknowledgement to Jeff Corey for playing an incisive and insightful doctor with due style and substance, there’s James Edwards, a year before the arrival of Sidney Poitier, showing America that a coloured actor could play a role with depth. It’s telling that the prominent African American actors of the outrageously racist prior era were calling it a day at this point and I do wonder if they saw the writing on the wall. Willie Best made 113 movies but only one after 1949, as a stable boy. Stepin Fetchit made three, with another two a couple of decades later in a brief return to the screen. Mantan Moreland made nine pictures in 1948 alone but only one in 1949, before retiring for a decade and a half. The moral tone of Hollywood was clearly changing, not least because the Hays Office allowed the use of the word ‘nigger’ here for the first time since The Emperor Jones in 1933. It’s not used often but it is there and it’s highly effective. Other films to address racism in 1949 were Intruder in the Dust, Lost Boundaries and Pinky.
James Edwards, having shone here as a soldier, got to play a bunch more of them. I last reviewed him in The Steel Helmet, a notable Sam Fuller picture in which he’s a lot more open to change on the racism front. You can’t rush these things, he says. While he has to sit at the back of the bus, fifty years earlier he wouldn’t have been allowed on at all; maybe in fifty more he’ll be able to sit at the front. Corporal Thompson is a far cry from Private Moss but Edwards rocks both roles. No wonder he’d be asked back to play more soldiers, in Battle Hymn and Pork Chop Hill and Coogan’s Bluff, to name just three. He died before Patton reached screens, with his role as the general’s driver, yet another soldier. Of course, he didn’t just play a soldier, he actually was one, serving as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army during World War II, so he was able to bring a sense of authenticity to these parts. Given how good he was here, it really is sad that Hollywood didn’t given him more opportunities. Maybe they hadn’t moved on too far after all.

He averaged only one picture a year for almost three decades, but they do include such notables as The Phenix City Story, The Killing and The Manchurian Candidate. He became one of those capable actors who takes care of a supporting role here and there to bolster the leads and, given that those are usually my favourite actors, it’s not a bad position to hold. He just deserved much more, like the career that Sidney Poitier carved out in his wake (not that Sir Sidney didn’t deserve that too but it shouldn’t have been either/or). Instead, he took advantage of gaps between film and TV gigs to write, including a western called Silent Thunder which became a TV play for Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, with John Drew Barrymore as a Native American called Little Horse. Edwards arrived a fully-formed actor, with a quality supporting role in The Set-Up and a lead here, which Woody Strode called ‘probably the finest job that had been done by a black actor in the motion pictures’. It’s just a shame that it would remain his finest job.

A Life in Musicals: Arthur Laurents (by Emma Brockes)
Edwards, James (1918-1970)
Someone Must Make a Stand (by Moira Finnie)

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